The Secret to Dealing With Awkward Customers

A headshot of a customer service representative furstrated

Let’s talk about awkward customers… You know, the ones that make you seriously think that some people aren’t worth doing business with!

From repeatedly sending back products and making apparently unwarranted complaints, to demanding something over and above your offer… Not to mention taking up too much of your agents’ time!

It can be tough to know what to do in these situations, can’t it? So, we asked our consultants panel for their best advice on how to firmly (but politely) handle these conversations for the best possible outcome.

Here’s what they said…

1. Teach Your Agents to Use the No-Why-But Approach

Pierre Bauzee, a certified Customer Service Trainer and Consultant, and the Founder of Beyond Satisfaction.

Learning to say no to your customers is key. And there is one method to do it effectively: the no-why-but approach.

With this approach, agents can “no” without properly saying it (“unfortunately, this is not something we can do….”) while explaining the reason behind it (by making it about the customers’ needs) and giving them an alternative solution wherever possible.

Contributed by: Pierre Bauzee, Founder of Beyond Satisfaction

2. Probe the Customer to Understand Their Actual Needs

Alex McConville, author of ‘Diary of a Call Centre Manager’

When customers demand more than what’s on offer, for example, if they say, “I want to speak to the CEO,” agents should probe further to understand their actual needs – often, they just want a resolution or to be heard.

…And it’s okay not to know all the answers! If agents are unsure about something, train them that it’s perfectly fine to tell the customer that they’ll check and get back to them.

Customers appreciate accuracy and honesty over hasty, incorrect responses.

Contributed by: Alex McConville, Founder, Contact Centre Consultant – Alperformance, and author of ‘Diary of a Call Centre Manager’

3. Don’t Automatically Assume the Customer Is Trying to Exploit the Company

Always look at things from the customer’s perspective and assume goodwill.

Assume the customer feels their issue is legitimate and they’re not trying to exploit the company, that they just want a resolution that feels fair to them.

After all, your customers’ expectations are the culmination of all of the experiences they’ve ever had with every company they’ve ever done business with before they called you!

For example, if they were a Zappos customer, unlimited free returns was their standard practice, so it’d make sense they’d think your company would do the same.

Contributed by: Adam Boelke, Founder of the Alignment Advantage Group

4. Stick to the Facts

Dan Pratt, Founder & Director DAP Consultancy

When dealing with unwarranted complaints or argumentative customers, sticking to the facts is essential.

Provide clear, factual information about the product or service and any relevant policies.

This can help to disarm customers who are trying to manipulate the situation. Also ensure that your responses are based on company guidelines and documented information to avoid misunderstandings.

Contributed by: Dan Pratt, Founder & Director DAP Consultancy  

5. Tell – Don’t Ask!

Matt Lyles, Keynote Speaker, Brand Consultant and Podcast Host at Matt Lyles & Co LLC

Don’t make the mistake of asking the customer how they’d like their issue resolved. They may reply with an expectation that you can’t meet.

Or they may become even more frustrated because they feel you’re putting your job off onto them.

Instead, tell them the steps you will take to turn the situation around. This allows you to set clear boundaries by saying, “This is what we can do to help you.”

Contributed by: Matt Lyles, Keynote Speaker, Brand Consultant and Podcast Host at Matt Lyles & Co LLC

6. Document Everything!!!

Keep detailed records of all customer contact, as this can pay dividends if there are disagreements later down the line, for tracking trends or repeat instances of persistent “advantage taking”.

This can also help in understanding the context for future conversations and provides a record of what’s been promised and discussed.

Contributed by: Garry Gormley, Founder, CEO – FAB Outsourced Solutions

7. Add ‘Awkward Customer’ Role-Play Into Your Induction

Incorporating role-playing into your contact centre induction is a great way to give your agents practice in providing great service to even the most awkward of customers and increasing their level of empathy at the same time.

How do you do this? First, give the ‘caller’ agent a customer profile and ask them to be as awkward or rude as possible – without crossing boundaries.

Once the activity has been completed, gather all the agents together and discuss:

  • How did they feel?
  • What would they do differently if they took the call again?
  • What level of customer service did they provide?
  • Were they able to resolve the call in the first instance (one call resolution)?

You can even create a workshop around handling difficult contacts and enrol your experienced agents on it too. You never know, your repeat contact rates might go down and your CSATS up!

Contributed by: Kim Ellis, Chief Learning Architect at Go Ginger Learning Solutions

8. Don’t Be Afraid to “Fire” a Bad Customer

Brittany Hodak, customer experience speaker and author of ‘Creating Superfans’

Some customers will never be happy, even when your agents do everything in their power to deliver exceptional service.

In addition to demoralizing employees, bad customers steal resources away from good customers.

As a leader, you’ve got to set the tone with your team and let them know that it’s okay to “fire” a bad customer, as explained in the steps below:

Step 1 – Explain the Relationship Isn’t Going to Work Out

My advice for parting ways with a customer is to explain that, due to the gap between their expectations and yours, the relationship isn’t going to work out. Try to remain calm and polite, even if the customer is not.

Below are a few examples of words and phrases you can use to begin this delicate conversation:

  • “Unfortunately, it seems that we’re unable to meet each other’s expectations.”
  • “It’s become clear that our services are not the right fit for your requirements.”
  • “Despite our best efforts, it seems our services are not aligning with your needs. To maintain our standards and ensure the best experience for all our customers, we’ve decided it’s best to end our business relationship.”
  • “It seems we’ve been unable to meet your expectations consistently, despite our best efforts. To ensure you receive the service quality you deserve, we believe it’s best to end our business relationship.”

Step 2 – Be as Clear as Possible in Your Timeline

It’s important to be as clear as possible in your timeline. Is your relationship over “effective immediately” or “after you fix the last thing they complained about”? Be definitive in your description of how your relationship will end and what will happen next.

Step 3 – Recommend Another Company

Lastly, try to end the interaction on a relatively helpful note. You can recommend another company that provides similar services and say something like, “This organization might be a better fit for you.”

By handling the situation professionally and respectfully, you maintain your company’s reputation and demonstrate your commitment to a positive working environment for everyone.

Contributed by: Brittany Hodak, Keynote Speaker & Author of Creating Superfans

9. Share Real-Life Stories to Showcase Best Practice

Shep Hyken, CAO (Chief Amazement Officer) at Shepard Presentations LLC

People learn from stories! So, make sure to share lots of real-life examples with your agents.

If you can make a habit of this, these examples will quickly become a powerful resource for your team.

For example, if an agent wants to say “no” to a customer and escalates the conversation to their supervisor, this becomes a training moment – particularly when the supervisor shows them a better way to handle that call, so they know what to do better next time.

But it shouldn’t stop there! This example should also be shared with the wider team and documented in a best-practice manual for future reference.

This way, you’ll continue to add to your very own valuable resource of case studies – with real-life examples of dos and don’ts for agents to refer to.

You can also discuss these examples in team meetings, leading with phrases such as “let me give you another example of how this happened” and “how would you handle this?” – as repetition really helps information to sink in.

Contributed by: Shep Hyken, Chief Amazement Officer (CAO) at Shepard Presentations LLC

10. Foster a Culture of Psychological Safety

Nathan Dring, Founder and Director of Nathan Dring and Associates Limited

To be able to deal with an awkward customer, agents need to know that their managers and the broader leadership team are on their side and in their corner. Psychological safety plays a huge part in this!

If an agent knows that they have a supportive but challenging leader, who trusts them and gives them autonomy, then it is much more likely the agent will be able to deal with the customer.

The flip side of this is agents having to deal with two pressures – the awkward customer AND the fear of ‘failure’ and subsequent consequences.

There will always be difficult customers, but when managers are equipped to lead with a culture of trust and high psychological safety, agents will be well equipped to handle these.

Contributed by: Nathan Dring, Founder and Director of Nathan Dring and Associates Limited

11. Shift Your Team’s Mindset to Handle Awkward Conversations More Effectively

Shifting the mindset of your contact centre agents can significantly enhance your ability to handle awkward customers more effectively.

For example, if you look at people who repeatedly send back products, the mindset shift here is to see it as an opportunity for improvement, with techniques such as:

  • Curiosity Over Frustration – Approach repeated returns with curiosity. Think, “What can I learn from this to improve our products or services?” Try not to blame the person; rather review your processes and service, and think of ways to prevent such further returns.
  • Problem-Solving Attitude – Adopt a problem-solving attitude. Consider each return as a chance to identify and fix potential issues.
  • Customer Advocate – View yourself as an advocate for the customer’s needs, working to ensure they are satisfied with their purchases.

Or, if you look at people who make apparently unwarranted complaints, the mindset shift here is to understand that perception is reality for the customer, with techniques such as:

  • Empathy and Understanding: Recognize that the customer’s complaint, warranted or not, stems from their perception. Think: “How can I understand their perspective?”
  • Constructive Feedback: Consider unwarranted complaints as valuable feedback that might highlight areas for communication or process improvements.
  • Patience and Calm: Remind yourself to stay patient and calm, understanding that addressing even unwarranted complaints professionally can enhance the overall customer experience.

All of the above can also be supported by strengthening your team’s resilience by practising self-care and stress-management techniques, ensuring they can bounce back from difficult interactions.

Contributed by: Dara Kiernan, leadership development and contact centre consultant

12. Show Agents Which Customers Are Adding Value (and Which Aren’t)

Neville Doughty, Partnership Director

We have a responsibility to our agent teams to remember how difficult “awkward customers” can be, and to support them in dealing with them.

One way to do this is to use analytics to understand which customers are adding value and which are just a hidden cost line.

Being clear of the value and price point of your product or service and understanding when they are making excessive returns or complaints – and delivering that to your agent systems – empowers your team make the right decisions.

Contributed by: Neville Doughty, Partnership Director, Contact Centre Panel

13. Always Thank the Customer

Thank the customer for their business and thank them for sharing their bad experience with you. Confrontational customers may be expecting a confrontation.

When you start by thanking them, it can throw them off course. It can help them immediately feel valued, complaints and all. When they feel valued, they’ll likely be more willing to calm down and work with you.

Contributed by: Matt Lyles, Keynote Speaker, Brand Consultant and Podcast Host at Matt Lyles & Co LLC

14. Take Ownership and Follow Through

If you commit to logging a complaint, sending an email, or reordering an item, follow through.

Update the system with notes and, if you promise to call back within 60 minutes, make that call – even if there’s no news.

Consistent follow-through builds trust and credibility, often disarming even the most difficult customers.

Contributed by: Alex McConville, Founder, Contact Centre Consultant – Alperformance, and author of ‘Diary of a Call Centre Manager’

15. Continuously Refine Your Approach (and Update Your Knowledge Base)

Jeremy Watkin, Director of Customer Experience and Support at NumberBarn

De-escalation in the contact centre is more important than ever.

To help support our agents on these calls, we created an article in our internal knowledge base that we’re constantly adding to – with tips and resources, including to:

Practise Reflective Listening

As you listen, repeat some of the phrases you are hearing and offer verbal feedback so they feel heard and understood.

Understand Their Baggage

Acknowledge that difficult circumstances led to this moment and validate their concerns. This can be done without assigning or accepting complete blame for the issue.

Approach It Like a Beginner

Remember that you spend all day in your systems and they do not. You may need to slow your pace to ensure that the customer can follow along.

Take the time to talk about those interactions with agents too and continuously refine your approach, so they never feel like they have to go it alone.

Contributed by: Jeremy Watkin, Director of Customer Experience and Support at NumberBarn

16. Be Assertively Empathetic (Don’t “Give In” to Unreasonable Demands)

Garry Gormley, Founder, CEO - FAB Outsourced Solutions

If a customer is being unreasonable or demanding something beyond what you can offer, your agents must clearly but politely set boundaries about what’s possible.

Showing empathy by expressing understanding and validating their emotions can also help defuse the situation.

This doesn’t, however, mean they have to agree or “give in” to unreasonable demands, so make sure they are trained to maintain assertiveness in what they can do whilst being empathetic that the situation may not be what the customer expected.

Contributed by: Garry Gormley, Founder, CEO – FAB Outsourced Solutions

17. Always Take a Fair and Consistent Approach

James Edmonds, Director of Investor in Customers Ltd.

Adhering to company policies is crucial. Consistency not only protects the company but also sets a standard for all customers, ensuring fair treatment across the board.

After resolving a difficult situation, you could also introduce a follow-up call or email into your process to demonstrate that the company values the customer’s experience and is committed to their satisfaction.

This can help turn a negative experience into a positive one and build long-term loyalty.

Contributed by: James Edmonds, Director at Investor in Customers (IIC).

18. And… Switch the Conversation to a Different Channel If You Need To

Some customers can monopolize your time with endless complaints or demands. It’s important to manage your time efficiently while still addressing their concerns. Politely but firmly steer the conversation towards a resolution.

If a customer is particularly time-consuming, it may be necessary to suggest continuing the conversation at a later time or through a different channel, such as email. This ensures that other customers are not neglected.

Contributed by: Dan Pratt, Founder & Director DAP Consultancy  


Spare a Thought for Doris (She Doesn’t Mean to Be Awkward)

Kim Ellis

Some customers just come for the drama, others are there to try to get everything they can out of a company.

Then there are the customers who don’t mean to be awkward, they’ve just got a super-niche or complicated issue.

There are also the customers who don’t realize they are being awkward, such as customers who are neurodivergent or have OCD.

These reasons are just the tip of the iceberg when you’re dealing with awkward customers, and it would be so great to be able to drill down and find out why they are being awkward.

For example, imagine your contact centre handles refunds for catalogue purchases. Everybody knows Doris because she buys a lot and returns a lot.

But what you don’t know is that Doris is bipolar, and shops obsessively when she’s in a good mood… but Doris is also in debt and THAT’S WHY she returns a lot of her purchases and gets frustrated if her refund doesn’t get processed quickly. Doris doesn’t mean to be awkward, it’s just how she is.

This gives you an insight into one customer, but just consider, how much do you really know about your customers? Their lives? Their struggles?

You don’t always get the luxury of figuring your customers out. So, your agents need to be able to handle every customer, every call and every emotion – every day. And that takes practice – and training.

Contributed by: Kim Ellis, Chief Learning Architect at Go Ginger Learning Solutions

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